What if everything you ever posted on Facebook was completely and irretrievably erased?
If having the entire contents of your Facebook life disappear doesn't sound like a big deal that's probably because you're older than 25. For younger people Facebook operates like a social diary, photo album, scrapbook and school yearbook rolled into one. None of life's narrative is on paper anymore, and very little of it gets backed up onto a medium the user physically owns.
Our family recently hosted a French exchange student for 10 days. His diary of the trip - including photos - was chronicled in a series of Facebook passages. Before he left I burned a CD-ROM with the 160 or so photos and videos taken with our camera and put it in his suitcase. He never thought about it. Why should he? It was, after all, already on Facebook. I am sure that it never even occurred him that the data stream that chronicles his trip -- and his high school years - might simply vanish someday.
Users of Friendster learned this last week when the social networking site announced plans to delete user profile information as it refocuses its business plan. Every posting - every message, every blog post, every photo - years of memories and experiences will be wiped away. And with MySpace in the process of being auctioned to the highest bidder, the personal profile information posted by its users could be at risk as well.
Both sites have become casualties of Facebook, which is now the defacto repository of memories, a scrapbook for millions of people. Will it be around in five years? Possibly. Then again, MySpace went from the most popular social networking site in 2006 to being overrun in 2010 by the next big thing: Facebook.
In Facebook we trust
Facebook's dominance today is a given. When our local high school created a dedicated Ning social network site where exchange students and their host families could register and meet, the students panned it. Instead they forged new friendships on Facebook and posted everything there.
Security experts have long warned personal computer users about the dangers of not having a backup of their personal data and of the need to store that backup off site. Now the problem is reversed: People entrust the cloud with massive amounts of data but have no local backup of it that they can hold onto in perpetuity. On social networks they don't really even own the book of life they've written. And it can disappear with little or no notice - and no culpability.
Options to back up Facebook content are available, but limited. SocialSafe, for example, will back up most of your content: photos, status updates and wall posts and lists of friends. But without the Facebook application on which to hang it, much of the structure and the conversational context of that data would be missing. It is, however, much better than doing nothing.
Which is what most people do, perhaps because we think of the Web as a repository of personal data that's not just permanent but very hard to remove.
However, the only Web content that perpetuates itself is that which has a constituency. If people are passionate about preserving some of your personal data - or have a business case to preserve some of your personal data - that data may take on a life of its own, in some cases resisting even the most determined efforts to remove it. And so while your phone number appears everywhere, and that embarrassing video of you waving a light saber in your underwear lives on, personal, everyday memories of family and friends are as ephemeral as the free services hosting them. At the end of the day it's not really your data. And as business models change - at Friendster, at MySpace, and even eventually Facebook -- those memories will always be at risk.